Choosing Your Safety Certification

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How to Shop for Certifications

Today, there are about 300 certification programs and titles available in the United States in safety, health, environment and ergonomics. The growth in titles creates many questions for potential buyers and users of these programs. What characteristics define quality? How does safety certification add value? What makes one safety certification more worthwhile than another?

Many employers and government organizations rely on the certification process to select employees or award contracts.  Accredited peer certification programs set standards and evaluate people against the standards.  The standards include minimum requirements for education/training and experience and demonstrated knowledge and skill through examinations. 

Accreditation of peer certification programs provides an independent, third-party evaluation of many factors which contribute to ensuring candidates, certificate holders, employers, government agencies and the public that a certification program operates fairly, openly and effectively.  The two organizations most commonly awarding accreditation in the environmental, safety, and health fields are the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) administration of the ISO 17024 standard. Both organizations evaluate peer certification boards for compliance with national and international standards.

Quality Standards

Quality standards for certification programs include fairness to candidates, valid and reliable examinations, high quality questions, passing scores,security of examination materials, open governance and financial practices, and recertification.

A safety certification not meeting these standards is not valuable and could waste time, effort and money.

Fairness to Candidates.  This includes non-discrimination policies in applications and testing admission.  It also means eligibility is independent of memberships in organizations.

Valid and Reliable Examinations.  A valid examination is one which follows acceptable procedures to identify what subjects should be included on the examination.  Certification examinations should cover only those subjects which are relevant, important or critical in the practice for which the certification is issued.  The acceptable procedures normally use job analysis and validation surveys to define the examination blueprint. Validation procedures are relatively expensive and time consuming to complete and, as a result, some certification programs forgo them.  For example, BCSP recently spent about $100,000 in a study involving about 1,500 safety professionals to re-validate professional safety practice and update the blueprint for CSP examinations.

High Quality Questions.  Writing questions for a certification examination is a complicated process.  Generally, those in practice are a major source of draft examination questions.  Then, the questions go through a sequence of edits.  In multiple choice questions, all choices must be valid and the questions must have a recognized reference for the correct answer.  Every question has to contribute to the examination goal of deciding whether a candidate has the minimum knowledge and skill applicable to the practice covered by the certification.

Passing Scores.  Passing scores on certification examinations must be fair for all candidates.  Certification examination scores are pass-fail scores.  The goal is to determine whether a candidate meets a minimum level of competence as determined by the cut score or passing score.

Certification examinations cannot use arbitrary (academic-style) or normative (achievement test-style) scoring methods, because they do not ensure all candidates have an equal chance to pass the examination.  A common procedure used to set the passing score or cut score for certification examinations is the Angoff Method.  Each member of a panel of experts rates each question on the examination in terms of what portion of the candidates who are just good enough to practice in the area covered by the examination will know the answer.  This process weights such things as difficulty and universal application in various job settings.  The rater will expect fewer candidates to get difficult questions right and many to answer the easy questions correctly.  A mean across all questions and all raters determines the passing score.

Security of Examination Materials.  Proper security of examination materials, whether questions are in draft form, included on an examination, on paper or in electronic format, is critical to the credibility of a certification.  Compromise of examination security can destroy the value of the certification.

Open Governance and Financial Reports. Open governance ensures those controlling qualifications, examinations, and candidate evaluations represent those in practice.  Open governance includes public representation and the impact of the practice for the public.  It means nominations and elections are not controlled exclusively by a few.

Open financial practices ensure there is a clear accounting of fees, income and expenditures, so individuals involved with the certification are not benefiting personally and the certification has sufficient resources to exist.  Reserve funds are needed to carry the cost of periodic validation studies and to keep up with and invest in technology needed for administration.

Recertification.   Another common requirement for quality certification programs is recertification.  The objective is to ensure that certificate holders keep up with the practice through continuing education and related activities.  Accreditation standards typically require certificate holders to recertify at least every five years.

Importance of Certification on the Rise

Why is there a growth in certifications?  Both employers and employees are increasingly relying on certification because many people working in human resources do not know the details of a particular area of practice. Employers understand candidates who have a certification from a quality source demonstrate competence through independent assessment. They routinely request applicants hold these certifications to help select qualified and competent candidates for employment.

When shopping for a safety certification, it is imperative to review the quality of the programs using the above criteria. Holding accredited certifications, holding dual certifications and demonstrating competency through quality certification programs can open doors to employment, advancement, leadership, contracts and compensation.

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